Dating back centuries before Christ, cultures brought evergreen trees, plants, and leaves into their homes upon the arrival of the winter solstice, which occurs in the northern hemisphere between December 21st and 22nd. Although the specific practices were different in each country and culture, the symbolization was generally the same: to celebrate the return of life at the beginning of winter’s decline.
Egyptians particularly valued evergreens as a symbol of life’s victory over death. They brought green date palm leaves into their homes around the time of the winter solstice.
Romans had a public festival called Saturnalia, which lasted one week beginning on December 17th, and included a variety of celebrations around the winter solstice. Curiously, the Roman winter solstice was marked on December 25th on the Julian calendar. These celebrations are thought to have merged with pagan practices of hanging mistletoe and the burning of the Yule log.
In Britain, the Yule log was originally seen as a magical amulet, and eventually made it into the hand’s of Father Christmas. In Italy the Yule log is still burned for the “Festa di Ceppo”. In Catalonia, the log is wrapped in a blanket until Christmas Eve, when it’s unwrapped and burned for the custom of “fer cagar el tio”. And in Serbia, families bring the Yule log (known as a “badnjak”) into their homes on Christmas Eve to be burned along with prayers to God to bring happiness, luck, and riches.
Druid priests in Great Britain also used evergreen plants and mistletoe in pagan ceremonies, and the mistletoe plant was the symbol of the birth of a god. Celtic Druids and Norseman of Scandinavia also used mistletoe in a mysterious ceremony just after the winter solstice.
In the mid 1500’s, Germans began using evergreen trees as a symbol of hope for the coming of spring. This practice is likely to have gradually evolved from pagan rituals of past, and merged with the celebration of Christmas leading to the tree’s Christian beginnings.
The most likely Christian beginnings of the modern Christmas tree were in the mid 1500’s in Germany. In 1521 in the region of Alsace (formerly part of Germany), the first pine tree was decorated and used in a Christmas celebration. In 1539, in the Cathedral of Strasbourg, there are church records that state a Christmas tree was used for the Christmas celebration. And in 1570 there are reports from a Bremen guild cronical that a fir tree was decorated with fruits and nuts which children ate on Christmas day.
In the 1700’s the Christmas tree custom had spread throughout northern Germany, and people began decorating the tree with candles that were lit on Christmas Eve, as is still done today in many homes across Europe. As the Christmas tree custom spread through Germany, the Roman Catholic Church eventually recognized it in the early 1800’s. It was introduced to Vienna in 1816, quickly spreading across Austria, and in 1840 to France by the duchesse d’Orleans.
The Christmas tree was introduced separately in different US cities by German immigrants, most likely in the mid 1700’s. Several US cities claim to have had the first Christmas tree in America. Bethlehem, PA appears to have had the first decorated Christmas tree in 1747 at the German Moravian Church settlement, however it was made by putting evergreen branches on a wooden pyramid! Windsor Locks, CT claims they have earliest date in 1777, while Easton, PA also claims the first Christmas tree in 1816! Since these first real Christmas trees, there have been many changes leading to today’s modern Christmas tree!